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Exclusive Report: Emergency Calls During Lahaina Wildfire Unveil Fear and Confusion Amid Desperate Attempts to Evacuate

by Michael Nguyen
5 comments
Lahaina Wildfire 911 Calls

Caught in vehicles, residences, or on shorelines while fire, dense smoke, and embers engulfed them, residents of the historic Lahaina community on Maui dialed 911, the single lifeline they hoped could provide assistance or guidance in a crisis.

A homeowner doused his property with water as surrounding houses ignited: “I’m uncertain if we can evacuate,” he communicated. A family took shelter in their hearth, unwilling to abandon their terrified pet, while smoke detectors blared ceaselessly. “I’m unable to exit my home—flames are entering the residence,” another woman exclaimed. “I have an infant.”

Recorded conversations with emergency dispatchers, obtained by The Big Big News via a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal the swift and overwhelming nature of the most lethal U.S. wildfire in over a century as it engulfed the town, and the ensuing difficulty officials faced in managing the turmoil.

As calls flooded in, and with law enforcement and firefighting personnel fully committed, the dispatchers became increasingly incapable of delivering direct assistance, instead resorting to dispensing counsel like “Evacuate if it becomes necessary,” while reassuring callers that emergency units were nearby.

The dispatchers consistently demonstrated empathy, attempting to alleviate residents’ anxieties and advising them to undertake any measures necessary to ensure their safety. Changing conditions dictated varying advice—some were instructed to remain in their vehicles, others to sprint to safety or to seek refuge in the ocean. Several were directed towards the Lahaina Civic Center if feasible.

“You’ll have to exercise patience,” one dispatcher advised a woman trapped in gridlock while evacuating her family on Front Street—a location where cars would soon be engulfed in flames and lives would be lost. “Movement will occur, albeit gradually.”

“Are we at risk?” inquired the caller.

“Absolutely not, ma’am—we’re doing our utmost,” responded the dispatcher.

Minutes later, a different caller received more urgent direction: “If driving is impossible, exit your vehicle and flee.”

The emergency communications, released to AP, span from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on August 8, as a hurricane-fueled fire descended upon the town. The disaster resulted in a minimum of 98 fatalities and the annihilation of over 2,000 structures, the majority being residential properties. The blaze obliterated Lahaina, a town of historical significance that once functioned as the Hawaiian kingdom’s capital and a port for whaling vessels. Several motorists found themselves entrapped on Front Street, hemmed in by smoke and a wall of fire. They faced the immediate decision to remain or dive into the ocean as vehicles exploded and fiery debris rained down.

Hawaiian Electric, the principal electrical service provider in the state, has admitted that its power lines initiated the Maui wildfire. Local firefighters, having declared the fire contained, departed, only for flames to rekindle in proximity.

Both Maui County and bereaved families have instituted legal proceedings against Hawaiian Electric, alleging the company failed to deactivate power despite dangerously high winds and arid conditions.

Consecutive calls for help arrived from those immobilized in vehicles, hindered by fallen trees and power lines, or concerned for relatives alone at home. Repeatedly, overburdened dispatchers expressed regret but informed callers that no aid could be dispatched to their locations.

A distressed father found himself ensnared in his truck, accompanied by numerous other vehicles, behind an old mill belonging to one of Hawaii’s original sugar plantations. Flames reached perilously close to the automobile before they could escape, still communicating with a dispatcher.

“Some individual is incapacitated over there,” he said.

“Proceed, Father!” his son interjected. “We are powerless to assist her!”

The emergency call center also received communications from beyond Lahaina, including reports of violent criminal activities and additional wildfires on the island. In total, more than 4,500 emergency communications were logged that day, per the Maui Police Department, a dramatic increase from the typical daily average of approximately 1,600 calls.

“It was an extraordinarily fluid situation that day, to which our dispatchers adapted as effectively as they could,” commented Police Spokesperson Alana Pico via email.

To protect privacy, authorities expunged personally identifiable information from the recordings. For numerous calls, it remains uncertain whether the individuals reached safety.

The dispatcher managed to convince the family sheltering in the fireplace with their pet to vacate their home. There were no infants among the confirmed casualties, suggesting the woman with a baby and an inflamed house likely survived the ordeal.

According to a list from Maui County, around two-thirds of the confirmed victims were 60 years of age or older. The calls underscored the helplessness experienced by those unable to self-evacuate.

At 3:31 p.m., a woman reported that her daughter had previously alerted authorities about an 88-year-old man left in their residence. She informed the dispatcher that the sliding doors were not secured.

“He would require physical extraction,” she informed the dispatcher. “I had to abandon him as the remainder of my family was in the vehicle.”

Just two minutes subsequent, a call was received from the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior living facility. The caller was one of the four individuals still present as flames advanced.

“Is evacuation necessary for us?” she queried, her voice tinged with panic.

“Madam, if you feel threatened, heed your instincts and evacuate,” responded the dispatcher.

Amid falling embers, the woman endeavored to flag down passing motorists for transportation. She ultimately succeeded.

The aftermath at the residence remains ambiguous. Authorities would later ascertain that several individuals perished there.

As the Lahaina catastrophe unfolded, frustrations escalated. A dispatcher momentarily rebuked a man who phoned at 4:56 p.m. to report his elderly parents were ensnared in their burning residence.

“Why did they not contact us directly? Direct communication would facilitate locating them,” stated the dispatcher. She further opined that the man should have advised his parents to evacuate sooner.

“We did attempt to inform them—my father was combating the fire,” the man replied. “His final words were, ‘I love you. We will not survive this.'”

Dispatchers also endeavored to pacify distraught callers.

“My mother and my infant are still out there,” a weeping caller informed a dispatcher at 4:44 p.m. “They exited their vehicle and proceeded up the street.”

The dispatcher encouraged her to provide the street name where she last saw them.

“Officers are deployed there, understand?” reassured the dispatcher.

Mahina Martin, Communication Chief for Maui County, stated that the recordings were released in compliance with a lawful request for public records.

“The reliving of this tragedy inflicts incalculable emotional distress upon survivors, their families, and the kin of those who were lost on that chaotic and sorrowful day,” Martin articulated in an email.

She later added, “it is lamentable that as individuals commence the healing process, they must also confront the anguish of reliving the catastrophic event as it is replayed in the media.”

The audio files resonate with a theme iterated by multiple survivors: Escaping, even via automobile, proved insurmountable due to traffic congestion and obstructed routes.

One caller detailed how vehicles were diverted into a secured parking lot, forcing them to reverse direction. Another stated they were guided onto an unpaved road leading directly into the wildfire.

“They routed us into the fire,” she exclaimed. “How could they make such an error?”

The Maui Police Department has thus far refused to publicly disclose which officers were directing traffic on August 8. Nonetheless, they have indicated an internal investigation is underway.

Public faith in emergency services has been fundamentally shaken. Residents demand comprehensive changes, including more precise crisis communication, improved coordination among emergency units, and robust evacuation protocols.

The Maui Police Department acknowledges the lessons to be learned from the catastrophe.

“The Lahaina wildfire was an unforeseen tragedy that placed immeasurable stress on our emergency response system,” declared Police Chief Gary Yabuta. “We pledge our ongoing commitment to strengthening our capabilities, ensuring that such a calamity does not recur.”

A large-scale public gathering is planned for later this month to honor the lives lost and the courageous acts demonstrated by both first responders and residents of Lahaina.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Lahaina Wildfire 911 Calls

What is the primary focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the 911 calls made during the Lahaina wildfire, revealing the challenges faced by emergency dispatchers and the panic experienced by residents. It provides a comprehensive look at how the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century impacted the historic town of Lahaina.

Who provided the audio recordings of the 911 calls?

The audio recordings of the 911 calls were provided to The Big Big News through a public records request.

How many people were killed in the Lahaina wildfire?

At least 98 people were killed in the fire, and more than 2,000 structures were destroyed, most of which were homes.

What is Hawaiian Electric’s role in the incident?

Hawaiian Electric, the state’s primary electric utility company, has acknowledged that its power lines started the wildfire on Maui that morning. The company is currently facing lawsuits for failing to shut off power despite the high winds and dry conditions.

How many emergency calls were made during the wildfire?

According to the Maui Police Department, there were more than 4,500 emergency calls and texts that day, including hundreds of calls during the time span requested by AP. Normally, dispatchers receive about 1,600 calls a day.

What legal actions have been taken since the incident?

The county and the families of some of the victims have filed lawsuits against Hawaiian Electric, alleging that the utility company negligently failed to shut off power, contributing to the wildfire’s devastating effects.

Were there any specific areas where people got trapped during the wildfire?

Many drivers became trapped on Front Street, which was surrounded on three sides by black smoke and a wall of flames. They faced a dire choice between staying in their vehicles or jumping into the ocean to escape the encroaching fire.

What challenges did the dispatchers face during the emergency?

Inundated with calls and with all emergency responders occupied, dispatchers struggled to provide assistance, often resorting to offering basic advice like “Leave if you have to leave” and assuring callers that help was in the area.

What measures are being taken to prevent a similar tragedy in the future?

The article mentions that an internal investigation is underway by the Maui Police Department. Residents are demanding comprehensive changes, including improved crisis communication, better coordination among emergency units, and robust evacuation protocols.

How has the public’s faith in emergency services been affected?

The public’s faith in emergency services has been significantly shaken due to the failures in crisis management and communication during the wildfire. There is a strong demand for systemic improvements to ensure such a catastrophe does not recur.

More about Lahaina Wildfire 911 Calls

  • Lahaina Wildfire Overview
  • Emergency Dispatch Procedures and Challenges
  • Hawaiian Electric’s Role and Legal Repercussions
  • Public Records Request and 911 Audio Release
  • Maui Police Department’s Statement and Actions
  • U.S. Wildfire Statistics and Historical Context
  • Public Response and Demands for Accountability
  • Legal Framework for Emergency Response and Liability
  • Natural Disasters and their Impact on Infrastructure
  • Maui County’s Legal Actions and Public Statements

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5 comments

JohnDoe October 14, 2023 - 4:13 am

Wow, this is really eye-opening. Never realized how chaotic it can get for the dispatchers. They’re the unsung heroes, seriously.

Reply
EmilyP October 14, 2023 - 5:09 am

So sad to read about the families who were torn apart by this disaster. Can’t believe Hawaiian Electric hasn’t taken more responsibility!

Reply
SaraK October 14, 2023 - 6:52 am

Good reporting but I want to know more about what’s being done to prevent this from happening again. If it happened once it can happen again, right?

Reply
KevinT October 14, 2023 - 8:07 am

The legal actions against Hawaiian Electric seem totally justified. you can’t just shrug off something that led to 98 deaths.

Reply
Mike87 October 14, 2023 - 11:59 pm

it’s crazy to think you could be stuck in traffic while everything around you is literally burning. Makes you reconsider a lot of things.

Reply

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